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Aging and the beauty of being

As the pandemic forces us to focus narrowly on physical health and survival, we risk neglecting the crucial spiritual role our elders play in our lives
Lag Ba'omer pilgrimss in Meron (iStock)
Lag Ba'omer pilgrimss in Meron (iStock)

In the Hassidic community in Israel where I grew up, the front rows of seats in the synagogue faced backward. Those who took their places in those rows sat facing toward the congregation, rather than toward the holy ark at the front, so the people gathered in the synagogue had a full view of their faces, rather than of their backs. Those who were invited to sit there, facing the other members of the community, were not the wealthy and influential, nor even the best and wisest scholars; rather, these seats were reserved for the most elderly Hassidim. On Sabbaths and holy days, we could all see that only a few of them were following the prayers printed in the Siddur. Mostly, they sat in great stillness, in stark contrast to the other worshippers, who constantly gestured with their hands and swayed their bodies in the pious beseeching of personal devotion. From time to time, my father would bend down and whisper in my ear: “Regard them well, my son. This is what it looks like, to be shaineh yid (a beautiful Jew)!”

The model of personal beauty in Hassidism differs from the modern models familiar to most of us. I grew up believing that an “attractive person” – someone whom others want to emulate – will be at least seventy years old. It is no accident that on the Feast of Purim, when Jewish children are encouraged to dress up to look like characters they admire, so many kids wear costumes of wise old folks. They wander the streets dressed as famous rabbis, but never as young prodigies, always with long white beards and walking sticks: these are the shaineh yid – “beautiful Jews” – they most admire.

For me – as for other Hassidic youngsters – the synagogue was our playground, where we romped and played among the worshippers. Then, as the prayers lengthened and we grew tired, our fathers would send us to “The East” – that is, to those same front benches, where our biological or adoptive grandfathers quietly sat. My grandfather welcomed me beside him, and never instructed me to follow the prayers. Rather, he would let me sit under the cover of his tallit (prayer-shawl), and there, as he rested a hand on my shoulder, I would lean against him, and sleep.

In that Hassidic synagogue of my childhood, I first learned that a loving touch, and the safety and comfort of deep shared repose, are sure pathways to a practical Jewish theology, a theology of flesh and spirit, of becoming “a beautiful Jew.”

***

The essence of Jewish Hassidic life can be seen as a series of overlapping and contiguous circles or “cycles.”  When we are children (until the age of Bar Mitzvah) – we exist in a vital state of “Being.” The community does not expect us to create and act, but rather to experience – to feel on our lips the taste of prayer, of play, and of faith: in our family, in our community, and in the divine presence. Hassidic children learn about life through the comforting touch of the parent’s tallit, the scent of the sweat on many bodies gathered for prayer, and the taste of the cakes served after worship. On a white sheet of paper, the letters of the Hebrew alphabet are written with lines of pure honey, for children to lick, bringing the holy letters intimately into their bodies, experiencing the sweet encounter between body and soul.  A child whose body contains the letters of the scripture, it is believed, will grow into an adult who yearns to learn any text composed of those same letters.

The second cycle of life in the (male) Hassidic context begins with the Bar Mitzvah. Here we move from a Judaism of “Being” to a Judaism of “Doing.” The Hassid is now devoted to a life of observing countless mitzvoth (commandments) to intensive study of Jewish sacred texts, and to forging a full life that includes good deeds, family relationships, and work.

This cycle, too, comes to its conclusion, normally, while we are still alive. The Hassidic worldview understands that Doing is not the ultimate goal, and that every Hassid should ideally return – in old age – to a cycle of Being once again, free from the demands of action. Thus the elders of the Hassidic community have a role that no one else can possibly fulfill. At a certain point, they cease from their striving in prayer, in work, and in new Talmudic insights. Their role, now, is simply To Be.

An existential state of Being, embodied in the elders, gives the whole community an opportunity to witness the sum total of a life well lived in the Hassidic tradition. The acceptance of age as an existential gift permits the Hassid to become “shaineh yid,” – or, to translate to our more inclusive situation today: “a beautiful human.” The job of the elderly, in Hassidism – is literally “to do nothing.” In this way they awaken in us the inspiration to seek meaning in existence itself.  They make us laugh, and comfort us in our sadness, and recount the Hassidic stories that are foundational to the community’s core values. Even though we have read these same tales in books, and may know them by heart, still, again and again, we listen carefully.

Hearing a story from the lips of one of the elders is not about learning new content. Rather, it is about the living presence of the teller. I will never forget the Hassidic tales as told to us by our teacher, Rabbi Yosef Tzeinvirt. His face would become radiant as he spoke, and his blind eyes, intensely blue, would shine a warm light into our lives. The Hassidic tales we heard from him had a special impact on me. Rather than being simply stories with a moral to be understood, they have become archetypal tales whose meaning I strive to live by.  At moments of challenge and complexity in my life, they arise in my mind, and shine a light on the pathway of a life journey that can be full of questions and short on answers.

Modern culture has almost entirely lost the secret of the crucial role that the elderly play in society. Recently, I heard a podcast in which the director of a chain of assisted living facilities was enthusiastically convincing her listeners, that the elderly residents were “very much alive!” She assured everyone that even the very old in these facilities were busy creating things, competing in sports, and generally “living it up.” Then she added, with a wink and a smirk: “Why, these old timers are even having great sex with each other!”

It is entirely correct to insist that life does not end with the onset of old age. But to equate life with Doing is to render the elderly simply redundant. If relevance in life is equivalent to activity and creating, then we are absolutely right to worry about what will happen to us, once our ability to act is curtailed by age – surely, then, we become irrelevant! In modern societies, many fear the day they will retire from work, leaving their jobs to the young who can perform them more efficiently. With each decade of technological advancement giving us new tools for doing work, the fear of becoming irrelevant only deepens. And this is perhaps why there seems to be a general fear of even seeing the very elderly too often – since they remind us of our own approaching irrelevance. Perhaps this is why, in some cases, the older members of our families are housed in group facilities, sometimes far away from our homes. In most cases, no one is really to blame for this. The truth is that our social norms do not often offer us any alternative to marginalizing the old. Even in our conversations, aging is often avoided, as a sad and “morbid” subject, like death.

Our secular modernized society has all but forgotten that real life does not end when we complete our Doing stage.  There is a full life-cycle awaiting us after our action-oriented chapter, and this is the period of our lives for conscious Being.

We return, in old age, to contemplate our lives, without judgment now, only allowing everything to be what it is. Meanwhile, new family narratives are forming through our aging awareness, narratives that can go far toward healing inter-generational trauma. Life invites us, now, to forgive ourselves for not being the parents we imagined we should be, and also to soften the hard edges of the expectations of perfection with which we once burdened our children.  As age frees up our busy appointment calendars, we find like-aged friends and family members with whom we can renew meaningful conversations. We also re-connect with our childhood in various ways, and let fall the steel armor we used to wear in order to deal with the demands of our active lives.  Bit by bit, we become more like and more in tune with the natural world around us, where everything is perfectly in Being mode.

Elders play a valuable role for a generation of younger people, focused as they are on action, often unable to catch their breath long enough to find soul and reflection in the midst of their Doing. To live alongside older folk is to experience moments of repose, of comforting touch, and also to learn that beauty is integral to the human body, just as it is, even without the tensed muscle tones of youth. The older person whom we love has earned every wrinkle and crease in their skin, through living a good life, equally rich with both success and disappointments.

Awareness of time and space change with age, and this is no accident. The decline of physical strength challenges what we always considered (mistakenly, it turns out) to be our firm control over our place and our pace in the world.  In Western modern discourse, this loss of control is perceived as a problem. The “fix” is to be found in extending our illusion of control over our familiar spheres of action for as long as we can possibly do so. World-views that are not so “modern” (and Hassidism is only one of these alternate viewpoints) offer us the ability to see, in the changes that occur in us through aging, an opportunity to transform our creative existence into a contemplative form of being.

In this year of pandemic, we are forced to re-examine our attitudes and practices surrounding aging and the elderly. Too many, as we noted above, have been confined to assisted living facilities – as our unconscious fear of the aging puts distance between them and us. Now, as many fall ill with the coronavirus, we distance ourselves, again, to protect them (and ourselves) from infection. It is a vicious cycle of alienation playing out now in life and death as too many elders die alone (from the virus or other reasons) without any family present to comfort them in their final hours.

The moral dilemma surrounding the subject of how to preserve the right distance between the older and younger generations during this pandemic is an honest and tragic problem in all its facets.  My point is not to question our intentions, but rather to point out that our basic assumptions, as we grapple with the problem, are fundamentally inadequate from an ethical perspective. Our society mostly forgets the essential Being role of the elderly in the context of community. So our discussion is reduced to a narrow focus on physical health and survival, and on the economic repercussions of the pandemic, without fully taking into account the spiritual role of our elders in our lives as a whole.

Questions such as these are only hints of ethical dilemmas to come, long after the threat of this particular pandemic is behind us. Now is the time to learn anew why and how we need our elders so deeply. Now is the time to remember that true beauty is not personified in the pageants of appearance, but in the forgotten realm of the shaineh human – “the beautiful human soul.”

About the Author
Dr. Yakir Englander is working to create Jewish and Israeli leadership in the US at the IAC. Originally from the ultra-Orthodox community of Israel, the Viznitz Hasidic dynasty, Englander earned a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in Jewish philosophy and gender studies. He is a Fulbright scholar and was a visiting professor of Religion at Northwestern and Rutgers universities and Harvard Divinity School. In addition, he was a Shalom Hartman scholar in Jerusalem. Englander served as the Jerusalem director of Kids4Peace and later as the vice president of the organization. All of my blogs were translated by Dr. Henry R. Carse
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